As the founder of The Walt Disney Company, Disney produced blockbuster movies and immersive theme parks the world had never seen before. Although Walt Disney had a darker side to his reputation, there’s a lot anyone can learn from his career. Here are some lessons from his success.
Prioritise Learning and Experience
Early in his youth, Walt Disney worked at a studio that developed an early form of cartoons. He had the feeling he was on to something big. He passed up any other opportunities — no matter how much more lucrative or easygoing — in order to continue his work cartooning. As biographer Neal Gabler writes in his biography of Walt Disney:
The fact that it was a primitive technique, though, made no difference to Walt, who just wanted to gain experience. “I got a fine job here in K.C.,” he wrote one of his old Red Cross compatriots proudly a few months after joining the Slide Co., “and I’m going to stick with it. I draw cartoons for the moving pictures — advertiser films — …and the work is interesting.”
Even when you’re discouraged, stick with it. When Disney was first getting started, his work didn’t seem promising. Gabler writes:
It wasn’t just the comparative crudity of the photography and drawings that marked these films. They were also imitative and unimaginative. How much this may have been the result of Walt’s inexperience or own lack of imagination is difficult to say.
Disney wasn’t making money, his abilities weren’t outstanding, and his job was unstable. Nonetheless, Disney was prepared to move onwards:
But despite the pressure and the lack of funds, he said, “I am going to sit tight. I have the greatest opportunity I have ever had and I’m in it for everything but my false teeth.”
When times are tough, you must steel your resolve. If you feel as though you’re on thin ice, keep your eyes on the next 30 days. Much like how you would develop a skill, treat this trying experience like practise for your persistence and optimism. As author Pat Williams highlights in How to Be Like Walt, Disney once said, “I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic enough to know that life is a complex matter.”
In his early days, Walt Disney had created a company called Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City. This business venture went bankrupt by the time Disney was 21. As Gabler highlights, he was in his own words “crushed and heartbroken”.
Disney did some odd jobs to make enough money to buy a film camera and move to Hollywood. That change in location set the gears in motion for his eventual success.
Know when to call it quits, and to shift your strategy (in Disney’s case, he shut down his company and shifted his location). Don’t stubbornly make the same mistakes over and over again. Prioritise your learning, be adaptable, and don’t give up on things just because they don’t pan out right away.
Embrace Perfectionism When It Matters
Sometimes, good just isn’t good enough. Embracing perfectionism, even just a little bit, can make life easier. It enhances your reputation. There’s a reason why Disney’s movies, theme parks and products have found their ways into most of our lives — at the time they were made, they were excellent.
Disney was notorious for his obsession with excellence. Some thought that it extended beyond business, and was simply core to his passion for art and cartooning. Gabler writes:
Excellence was not only Walt’s business strategy, it was the reason he ran the studio and the force that kept his personal world intact. “If you want to know the real secret of Walt’s success,” longtime animator Ward Kimball would say, “it’s that he never tried to make money. He was always trying to make something that he could have fun with or be proud of.”
Part of excellence means exploring uncharted territory, or pushing beyond what exists today. Disney constantly innovated, whether it was with integrating sound into movies, combining high art like classical music with the popular art of cartooning or creating the miniature city known as Disney World. In many ways, even his most visible failures eventually became successes:
“The thing I resent most is people who try to keep me in well-worn grooves,” he said to a reporter after embarking on his partnership with Dali. “We have to keep breaking new trails,” citing Fantasia as an example of a pathbreaking film that was “panned” at its release but that had continued to build an audience.
Disney’s animators would go through rigorous training. For example, they would study real-life movements to see how they could improve their cartooning. Disney would invite artists and instructors to come in and speak to his team. The animators would frequently burn the midnight oil in order to meet deadlines while retaining quality. Excellence doesn’t just mean dedicating more time to solve your problem. It’s not that simple. You must engage in deliberate practice to improve. Don’t be afraid to try new things or bring your own ideas to the table.
You don’t have to go from zero to hero in a short amount of time. The pursuit of perfection begins with incremental improvements. Whenever you feel like your project is good enough, give it a second look for a few minutes. See if you can identify any shortcomings. If you have the time, fix them. Your work will become more excellent than it was.
Know When to Do Less, but Better
Don’t get caught in the busy trap — conserve and focus your energy for the things that are most important. Disney knew the power of focus. The studio juggled a few projects at a time in its early days, but Disney knew when to concentrate his efforts and how important it would be to the success of the project and the studio.
For example, Disney knew that Snow White was going to be something special. He decided to take animators and budget from the short films that he was producing, which meant giving up the steady revenue they brought in, and instead having his whole team focus on Snow White. As Gabler highlights, Disney wrote to his brother Roy:
Writing to Roy that December, Walt called the feature “our one chance for real recognition, and with this thought in mind, I am going to concentrate on this feature, even at the expense of the shorts so I can have it out definitely one year from now.”
Snow White would eventually propel Walt Disney and his studio to superstardom and lead to much commercial and cultural success.
Disney learned to trust his own judgement over external opinions and criticism. After Bambi’s gloomy debut, Disney also learned to invest wisely so he didn’t invest too much time into a single feature film. As he told the Wall Street Journal in 1958, “I suppose my formula might be: dream, diversify and never miss an angle.”
When Disney worked with conductor Leopold Stokowski, Stokowski reminded him that simplifying can make a piece of work stronger. “It is like pruning a tree. It sometimes grows stronger from pruning,” Stokowski would say to Disney. If you’ve found yourself running around in circles, clear some stuff off your plate. Do less, but better.
As Rockefeller similarly advocated, work steadily. Don’t burn yourself out or waste your energy unnecessarily just to “feel” productive. Know when you need to concentrate your efforts and focus.
Walt Disney’s success as an entrepreneur, artist and innovator relied on his curiosity, his relentless pursuit of excellence and his focus. Use these principles to excel at your work, your art and your life.